Spent? Capitalism’s growing problem with anxiety

by JD Taylor on March 14, 2014

Post image for Spent? Capitalism’s growing problem with anxiety

In today’s turbo-charged and austerity-ravaged economy, anxiety and insecurity have become the new normal. How did this happen — and how do we fight back?

About six months ago, Moritz Erhardt, a 21-year-old intern for Bank of America Merrill Lynch in London, died after working for 72 hours straight without sleep. Journalists found a strange bravado among City workers, reflected in their tributes to a value-system of drive, resilience and regularly ‘pulling an all-nighter’ beyond all normal measures of exhaustion. That’s nothing. As one said, “On average, I get four hours’ sleep about 70% of the time … [but] there are also days with eight hours of sleep. … Work-life balance is bad. We all know this going in. I guess that’s the deal with most entry-level jobs these days.” Coupled to ambitions to succeed in careers scarcely worth the reward is a fatalism about expecting any change. That’s how it is.

This unflinching dedication to the job — indeed the job with the utmost virtue of wealth production — indicates a set of moral and social values increasingly used to describe both individual and national economies. On the one hand, productivity, growth, entrepreneurialism and drive are ‘virtues’ both of the effective individual and the expanding economy. By contrast, depression, crisis, zero-hour insecurity and burnout are used to describe both ‘failing’ economies and individuals who must work harder to perform. Whilst failing states are humiliatingly ‘bailed out’, usually under punitive conditions, individuals experience similar ‘interventions’ by more successful peers (and celebrities) on reality TV formats to increase their productive value through getting a job, looking sexier, or something similar. In each case, some internal failure (bloated public sector, childhood setback) is considered the cause of the ‘problem’ and remedied through external improvement of the individual.

Toxic Stress

A similar disengagement with reality occurred in the UK with the series of suicides and unofficial explosion in homelessness following the coalition government’s scorched-earth retreat on social spending and welfare. One man died by self-immolation in Bolton after harassment from debt-collectors became too much to bear. Yet in each case, the media narrative of individual self-isolation and appeals to ‘speak up’ in times of hardship ignores the common societal causes of these issues. It also reinforces an effective narrative that welfare, sick leave or social support should not be given to the ‘feckless’ and ‘undeserving’, but creates a culture of dependency (of which the reactionary ire over Channel 4′s Benefits Street is just the most recent example). This perverse rebranding of the relief of poverty is succeeding, with recorded social attitudes in the UK considerably hardening towards welfare recipients since 1997.

Reported rates of workplace stress, depression, and anxiety also correlate to worsening personal debt and public health problems like obesity and alcohol dependency. Though research remains undeveloped in this area (after all, what multinational or western government would fund such politically explosive material?), evidence from the World Health Organization (WHO), the US National Research Council and Institute of Medicine, and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation together indicate clear links between poverty and clusters of mental and physical health problems. This is not to suggest that mental health or suicides have only an economic cause (a recent series of suicides by high-profile ‘burnt-out’ French workers would challenge this), but the poorest have fewer forms of social and economic support in difficult times, and less opportunities to change their circumstances, than those with university educations, more extensive social circles or affluent relatives. Obesity, diabetes, ‘toxic stress’, and many forms of cancer have such a clear link to poverty that these ought not to be considered as diseases of affluence, but conditions of poverty in the same way that rickets, tuberculosis and infant malnutrition were to the deprived and exploited labouring classes of the 19th century.

Mental health and homelessness charities are being overwhelmed by appeals from millions abandoned for the sake of economic recovery. Study the news for long enough and stories of self-immolation, suicide and death by overworking are by no means unique to the UK (in Japan they term the latter karoshi, whereas in the case of Moritz Erhardt, our coroners call it an entirely unrelated epileptic seizure). But what is innovative is the effective management of the reality presented to entirely remove any collective, public or social basis for these growing problems. Instead responsibility is attributed to the individual, who has either been unfortunate or ineffective at adapting to the world around them.

Generation F#cked

What I highlight are extreme situations, and my interest is more in the millions who continue to live in more disempowered and restricted circumstances. Behind such cases is a new normal of zero-hour contracts, working without payment (either internships at the top or ‘workfare’ at the bottom) and in states of stress and anxiety, as an increasing dependence on management thrives on sucking the remaining residues of performance from precarious workers. Living costs have sharply risen in rents and goods, while supermarkets, energy firms, landlords and financial traders have greedily increased their profits. For institutions of popular power, scandals like the undemocratic catastrophe of the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars, the exposure of GCHQ and NSA’s total surveillance of internet and telecommunications, mass fraud by MPs of expenses, the rises in university tuition fees and the removal of EMA, regular press phone-hacking, the exposure of Murdoch’s power over successive governments’ policy, routine police racism, unlawful spying of protest groups, or the unprosecuted murders of members of the public, and — as we have already forgotten — the failure to meaningfully punish anyone in the City for the bank collapses of 2008 should have, each, led to a crisis of political legitimacy in the UK. These fine props of the illusion of freedom and prosperity are weakened, yet remain for now stuck in place. The expense of such illusions is a grinding and unnecessary burden, felt by many occasionally and some increasingly often, a burden that for now is explained as the individual’s to carry.

There is a generational feature to this. Those who have grown up in a society transformed by the anti-social, economic Darwinism mantras of Margaret Thatcher have experienced an intensification of productivity in the most intimate aspects of personal life. Increasing and intensified school examinations at earlier ages, combined with regular media terror-tales of abducted children and random youth violence, alongside an aggressive marketing of leisure technologies towards children has created a more anxious, distracted, allergic, paranoid and restless generation than those prior. This comes with some mental toll, and another remarkable societal transformation is the frequency and normalisation of mental health disorders, particularly among young people.

For many, like myself, like those closest to me, anxiety and depression are not technical terms but personal experiences. It was only a year or so ago that I realised just how depressed I had been across my adult years. Continual tiredness, regular little ailments related to stress, an occasionally total mental paralysis, the silent conviction of being a fraud, and the anxieties each of these engender: I knew what my symptoms meant even then. Through a very fortunate change of circumstances, getting funding to do a PhD, I finally obtained financial stability and the chance to work towards an actual personal interest, and on my own terms. I’ve been lucky, though academia is less a lifeboat and more a ship of fools, steered by bloated Vice-Chancellors. Mental health problems and anxiety disorders are growing in academia, particularly among PhD students and postdoctoral researchers. But the problems of continual productivity, heavy teaching workloads, workplace bullying, casual sexism, poor or non-existent pay, no work-life balance, and of competing (never cooperating) as a high-impact entrepreneur of oneself, are each features of modern labour in capitalist workplaces. Stress is the cost of success. Insecurity is the new normal, as is the passive acceptance of such insecurity as some unfortunate but necessary stage to success.

In my case, a series of jobs that I had largely loved in the charity/voluntary sector had already familiarised me with these things. Free of the stress of seeking or holding down employment, or of trying to justify myself in competitive and insecure workplaces. Free in time I could actually spend on things of my own free choosing. I discovered that stress had acted like a perverted mental program since my early teens to work long and hard, independently, for an image of material and existential ‘success’ that no-one, in hindsight, can possibly experience. This program, one that prizes and rewards aggressively macho behaviours like competition, cunning and strength of will over cooperation, compassion and indifference, considers life as a game of winners and losers. The existential effect of such a worldview combines restless labouring for the next project, followed by the next, alongside a crushing and inexplicable self-loathing that inverts the neoliberal narcissism of reality gameshows like Big Brother, X Factor and The Apprentice into a nasty minor key.

Within this common self-loathing is the repressed sense that this is not right, that life should not be lived in this way. But, unable to join the dots and connect a sense of personal alienation to material circumstances, I followed the common social direction and put the blame on my own individual defects. Not any more. I suspect my own case is not unique. How is it that so many females my age I know well enough are suffering from mental health problems and accessing public or private treatments? From my work as a men’s suicide prevention campaign coordinator, I also know from conversations and research that depression and anxiety are probably experienced in equal measure by men, but who are far less likely to consider getting outside support beyond the off-licence. Is it really such a coincidence?

Anxiety Machines

These might all be conditions of modern life: rates of allergies like hayfever and eczema in the UK population have risen to 44% in 2010, whilst rates of depression have similarly soared. Rising recorded levels of these ailments may signal a greater awareness and ability to self-diagnose these conditions, one could argue; but this alone doesn’t sufficiently explain why anxiety disorders began rising first of all. Anxiety and fear are psychological marks of domination in all social structures, but a specific anxiety and fear emerges in financial capitalism through the accelerating demands and pressures of working and living in the neoliberal era. Greater insecurity in the workplace or school leads to an intensification of individual failure that is also manifested in the growing trend of bullying, which further reinforces the cycle of stress, depression and suicide. I think this insecurity is also expressed through the very media used to communicate and function in everyday life. By this I mean the intensification of information technologies into domestic and personal life, what Paul Virilio calls a ‘tele-present’ world. From home computing for leisure, to the internet, hand-held communication devices, and social networking sites, in the last two decades there has been an unprecedented intensification of technologies that continuously connect users to hyperactive news streams and a disembodied form of social interaction, whose psychosocial norms deserves deeper analysis.

Consider the panic of losing a mobile phone, of having no access at all to the internet, to one’s games, movies, photos, or common nodes of social interaction that we call our friends or followers. A power-cut, a burglary… would it be wrong to call them addictions? Yet we have neither selected this basis of social organisation, nor should we guiltily consider ourselves lucky first-worlders gorging gluttonously on the backs of the deprived billions. Whilst digitised technologies have abstracted and placed many cultural forms on a single homogeneous platform, personal technologies have the worker connected and potentially labouring at all hours in ways that operate, at minute level, the exchanges and processes that neoliberal capitalism requires to function. Against such a backdrop, our politicians, the public face of neoliberal capitalism, cajole us through fear and envy to keep up our duty as citizens: spend, borrow, buy, 24/7, 365 days a year, be it Christmas, Valentine’s or whatever, one must never shirk in one’s duty to service the economy.

The medical establishment has also transformed its understanding of rising anxiety. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) of the American Psychiatric Association has, since the publication of DSM III in 1980, been considered the authoritative index of mental disorders, codified within a system of diagnostic management. The new fifth edition of 2013 describes ‘Generalized Anxiety Disorder’ as ‘excessive anxiety and worry’, which the individual experiences and finds difficult to control for more days than not for at least six months. It is an uncontrollable worry that largely dominates the sufferer’s time, and usually defined by three or more symptoms, including ‘restlessness’, ‘being easily fatigued’, ‘difficulty concentrating or mind going blank’, ‘irritability’, ‘muscle tension’, and ‘sleep disturbance’. General anxiety concerns an excessive and painful ‘apprehensive expectation’ for an uncertain future event, rather than of the present, as in fear. The disorder isn’t simply a reflection of an individual struggling against unusual duress, but extends to an anxiety about even the most mundane of things, like completing household chores, being late for appointments, or of one’s inadequate performance as a worker or friend.

Depressed Britain

I wonder if the DSM-VI will propose it on a collective scale? These symptoms describe those of the precarious worker, exhausted, fed up, yet compelled to stay awake just to finish a little more work from home, screens stained by old microwave meals, spilt coffee and reminder notes about looming dates, gym reminders and so on. Depression and exhaustion are endemic and act as marks of an affective and immaterial economy where employment is now to be found in the services — retail, leisure, call-centres, cleaning, childcare, sex work — where an inflated mood, one indeed of motivation, is required, as the recent attention to ‘affect’ in critical theory is making clear. Individuality becomes another part of the service worker’s uniform. Recent reports detail increasing depression and anxiety: a 2003 survey by the American Medical Association (AMA) found that 10% of 15-54 year olds surveyed in the US had had an episode of ‘major depression’ in the last 12 months, with 17% of these over the course of their lifetimes; a figure echoing the 15.1% found in the UK to be suffering from ‘common mental disorders’ (stress, anxiety and depression) by the NHS’s most recent 2007 adult survey.

Further, women were twice as likely to suffer from depression in both the AMA and NHS Surveys — the 15.1% average comes from 12.5% in men, 19.7% in women (the real unrecorded numbers are probably higher, and this is still the most recent survey, based on symptoms in the last seven days). The NHS Survey also found that self-harm and suicidal behaviours in women had increased since 2000, with ‘being female’ at one point listed by the survey as a source of depression, without irony or sociological comment. Finally, one-fifth of all working days in Britain are estimated as lost due to anxiety and depression forcing workers to take time off, a very shaky estimate given the stigma and perceived weakness of openly telling managers of mental health problems; but given the current prospect of increasing working hours in Britain as labour regulations are further ‘liberalised’, this anxiety will only continue.

Given the general, non-personal causes of these common mental disorders, evidence beyond the obvious observations of one’s surroundings suggests that living standards are declining, affecting men and women differently, with a high suicide rate amongst men on the one hand — suicide is the single biggest cause of death in men aged 15-34 in England and Wales — and a higher incidence of depression among women on the other. Recent employment statistics demonstrate that women have been adversely affected by the large redundancies within the public services in the UK following the neoliberal austerity cuts, with a 2011 TUC report finding female unemployment had risen 0.5 points to its highest level since 1988. Single-parent families are largely led by females, who are struggling with reduced welfare support, inflation and reduced employment opportunities, while continually demonised by the right-wing media and Conservative governments as ‘feckless’ and irresponsible. Austerity becomes the state of exception of British neoliberalism, with the need for deficit cuts being used both by Thatcher and succeeding governments to further reduce welfare and support services whilst justifying wage freezes and unemployment, which adversely affect women.

Age of Anxiety?

Yet rather than restrict the medicalisation of social issues or universal experiences of human life, the DMS-5 instead created a number of new disorders like ‘disruptive mood disregulation disorder’, for temper tantrums and other wilful behaviour, and extending ‘major depressive disorder’ to include bereavement, against the advice and review of much of the medical establishment, including the producers of previous DSM manuals who have already much to answer for. (But, the influence of DSM should not be too over-stated: beyond the USA, many countries like the UK instead use the WHO International Classification of Diseases). No doubt major pharmaceutical companies will not fail in honourably and dispassionately servicing such individual maladies, and others such discovered in 2013.

In the UK antidepressant usage is rising year on year, more than any other item prescribed. Prescriptions tend to be highest in areas of greater social deprivation (particularly northern towns like Blackpool, Barnsley and Redcar), but with over 50 million such prescriptions dispensed in England alone in 2012, increasing on the previous year by 7.5%, their usage has become democratically universal. The OECD have found that mental health problems now cost the UK economy £70 billion a year, or 4.5% of GDP, primarily through productivity losses and disability payments. Concerned only for economic growth, even the world’s “smartest men” — the neoliberal economists — are starting to doubt the credibility of the UK’s recovery, with more workers reporting mental health disability (just under 40% of all new disability claims) than any other developed country. By 2020, the WHO predicts that depressive disorders will be the leading cause of disability and disease burden across the globe. Researchers have found that a poor material standard of living accounted for nearly 25% of cases of common mental disorder in 1998, a figure which, given increasing poverty, debt and social inequality, will have surely risen.

So is ours an age of anxiety? Previous generations have also claimed this thorny crown, particularly those ravaged by social and economic inequalities like the 1930s. Yet it is in these last few years more than most that anxiety, precarity, crisis and burnout have become regular keywords, and where continuous productivity, connectivity and alertness are demanded at all hours. To anyone who values the lives of other human beings over the growth of stocks, shares and tax-free profits, this situation should be appalling. It will also worsen. To continue insisting that the mass breakdown of workers into malfunctioning anxiety machines is down to some failure of the individual is either callous or blind. As a collective that prizes its own freedom and happiness, then, what is to be done? That old question we always ask and to which, like chronic depressives, we can never commit resolutely to any sure answer. Perhaps, like guerrilla fighters, we might re-purpose these underlying controls identified into weapons of change? Not through some juvenile dream of accelerating the contradictions of capitalism, nor through the perverse belief that university-press-published critical jargon will undo the grip of neoliberal ideology on the lives and hopes of the majority. No, no.

I wonder instead if we might take a cue from the cod-psychology of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), popular in management and popular life. Though rightly discredited by many experts, NLP considers that the human experience is entirely based on the individual’s cognitive ‘map’ of the world. This mind can be re-programmed to visualise and experience more positive ‘frames’ of mind. It has been adapted for mass audiences, with great success, by TV hypnotist and celebrity advisor Paul McKenna. It shares a number of underlying premises with Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, now one of the most common non-pharmaceutical mental health treatments in Britain, like the onus on the individual to internally manage and remedy negative associations and behaviours. In NLP, common to treatments of individual problems is the requirement to visualise and step into a positive future persona. By adopting and embodying more proactive states, usually by mimicking ‘successful’ figures or a more positive projected self-image, the individual gains confidence and power over themselves and their surroundings. Now what if we were to discard NLP’s neoliberal emphasis on the individual imagining a more positive future self, in favour of a collective imagining of a more positive future society? What would the coherent visualisation and supposition of such a society look like, feel like? A society where equality, liberty and justice were fully supported by institutions of democratic political organization that meaningfully gave citizens power and effectively safeguarded against corruption or military/police abuses? What would the features of these institutions be?

Collective Desire

Our brains and backs are tense and tired, our minds shattered and nerves shot by increasing demands by managers to do the impossible: increase our productivity, when what is produced is less necessary and of worse quality than before. The demand everywhere is the same: do it more, do it quicker, do it better! Never must we act, think, feel or simply be for what is good itself. Part of the problem is that the good itself is never presented or introduced, its possibility unthinkable. By the good I mean a sense of future, not just for oneself, working against difficult circumstances to survive or succeed, but a quality of life that all can democratically produce and enjoy together. Where the needs of society determine economic activity, and where an ethics of public service determine political conduct. Where the qualities of a flourishing society, like unions, welfare, asylum, populism, social service, council, and public are no longer pejorative terms. Instead, people with good intentions on the Left have become confused, like two lost travellers fighting over the interpretation of a map, either pointing blame at other activists, cynically taking the dollar of private finance for more short-term gain, or simply giving in. The exhaustion and depression that some activists are feeling also mirrors this wider dislocation of hope, the good, and a future, from our myriad cognitive maps.

As the basis of our future political activity, we should begin by thinking what is possible and what is desired. Transforming the way we work, live together, understand ourselves, and communicate with each other will require brave new ideas that adapt the benefits of these technologies to the prior wellbeing and welfare of each of us collectively. It won’t be easy. But given the fact that anxiety disorders, suicides and wider mental health problems are rising and becoming normalised to a fairly terrifying extent, I think it’s fair to give these a political explanation. Rising anxiety disorders are connected to the growing pressure on workers to increase their productivity. It is encouraged by the growth of working from home, and smartphone technology, which irrevocably blur the work/life distinction. It is encouraged by the growing power (and pay) conferred to managers, to the rapid decline of workers rights, and of trade unions to legally resist these. It is an effect of the collapsing infrastructure of our communities and the loss of support services that once could help. Therefore, what could be done is to reverse each of these in turn: challenge and, how I dream it to be possible, overthrow governments that act only in the interests of large businesses. To fight for things like a fixed working day, a living wage, and to fight for massive increases in the resources given to support mental health problems. To discuss these things more openly, too — exhaustion is increasingly the norm. And then to politicise these experiences, and begin to dream together and work together to produce the kind of society where mass depression and collective anxiety are banished.

Today we are spent and we are broke, fit only for a few decades of underpaid labour before being cast aside by the markets as unproductive fodder. Things will worsen unless we politicise anxiety and depression, and start the fight to prioritise the welfare of our societies. Many of us feel paralysed, buckling under the pressure to keep it all together but knowing that the way we work — and live — is damaging us and our relationships. Globalisation of neoliberal political and economic practices is now creating an equality of insecurity and misery for all people, particularly the young, who have little chance of getting even a pension or affordable care in their final years. In such a moment of over-extended transition, where the credibility and legitimacy of the 0.01% has never looked weaker, what future is ours? It will be the future that we dream of, that we refuse to abandon, and that we cannot possibly entrust to the deceptive economic motives of our undemocratic elites. Societies must express collective desire or they will not be at all.

JD Taylor is a researcher and writer from London, and author of Negative Capitalism: Cynicism in the Neoliberal Era (Zero, 2013). Follow JD on Twitter: @jd_taylor.

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Neil March 15, 2014 at 12:18

The diagnosis is spot on but unsurprisingly the discussion of what is to be done is a little weak. In particular I thought the suggestion that we should “fight for massive increases in the resources given to support mental health problems” in and of itself would only reinforce the tendency to treat symptoms and facilitate individual adaptation rather than (collectively) address the underlying causes. Part of the reason for this is that mental health has become overwhelmingly medicalised and professionalised, and therefore more resources thrown blindly at the problem would only help reinforce the status quo.

More resources would of course be good but I think what we need is a shift to a community-based and de-professionalised (as distinct from ‘non-professional’) model of care which is integrated with wider attempts to form decommodified collective and co-operative living and production spaces on the margins of mainstream society. I think we also need to effect a shift in the perception of what mental health means by placing a much greater emphasis on wellbeing and flourishing in a social context rather than simply on (individual) biological functioning.


Kingfelix March 15, 2014 at 18:25

Anyone with time to spend on an article as long as this may be intetested in this better-written and more empirical account on the same topic.



John April 10, 2014 at 20:56

How is it constructive to say “anyone with time to spent on an article as long as this may be interested in this better written and more empirical account on the same topic”? Aren’t we all severely concerned about the same things here? Why not just say, “here’s a great article that adds to the subject”? Or is this just an example of necessary academic arsey-ness that puts so many people (of potential) off getting involved?


Jerome Roos April 10, 2014 at 23:43

Thanks, exactly my thoughts!


John April 10, 2014 at 21:03

but, besides that. Thanks for the link to the newleftreview article, I’ll give it a read when I have time.


Julie March 20, 2014 at 06:22

This article raises important points in general, but the author’s emphasis on the stress experienced by middle and upper-middle class people is problematic, as it masks the immeasurably greater stress experienced by those in poverty. I do not mean that the stress of those with higher incomes or class positions is inconsequential or should not be pointed out, but I wish the author would have made it clear that this article is about a particular class of people and the types of stress they endure, instead of making statements like “stress is the cost of success,” which renders stress experienced by the truly economically dispossessed invisible. The author made a choice when they chose an over-worked Bank of America intern as the tragic face of this issue. This young person’s death WAS tragic, no question about that but many people do not recognize themselves in this person’s story; their struggle is a different one, their stress of a different kind, and those people should not be written out of the story.


Danny O'Dare March 23, 2014 at 14:39

I don’t suppose you’ve got any idea who the artist is?




Stephanie September 26, 2014 at 07:27

Some form of mental disorder affects 1/2 of people before they graduate highschool. This is a doubling from the early 1990s. And it’s not just depression, it’s all mental disorders.


Matt Colborn December 4, 2014 at 16:05

Hi — This post really resonates, mainly because I’ve been researching ways to help human flourishing and putting some of my thoughts about this on my website http://www.mattcolborn.com

You’re absolutely right that social, collective problems tend to be perceived — through ‘rebranding’ as individual issues. I’ve found this to be true in case after case.

Two examples I’ve personally investigated: the obesity epidemic and workplace burnout.

I, too, have been startled by the pervasive lack of consciousness about the social causes of stress/anxiety, which are pretty much universal in the workplace. I also think that a lot of the spitefulness of politics in the UK is down to this: when we’re stressed or anxious, our reptile brains tend to switch on, our viewpoint narrows and we look for scapegoats rather than problem solve.

On the up side, there is increasing awareness of this problem. I’ve been especially impressed with the work being done in Scotland:



Leave a Comment

{ 22 trackbacks }

Previous post:

Next post: